- Title: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary
- Author: David Sedaris
- Illustrator: Ian Falconer
- Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
- Release Date: September 2010
- Hardcover, 160 pages
- My Rating: 4/5 stars
- Synopsis: See the limerick from the book’s dust jacket in video form below…
If you know what a bestiary is (no…not bestiality, you perverts), you probably think of Aesop’s Fables. The most widely-known, at least according to my amateur household survey of three, are The Tortise & The Hare and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Kid’s stuff. But David Sedaris is most assuredly what English professors everywhere would call an ahh-dult humorist, writing about everything from his bizarre childhood to living in France with his partner Hugh. The first story in this bestiary, The Cat & The Baboon, ends with the line, “But what would it hurt to pretend otherwise and cross that fine line between licking ass and simply kissing it?” (SPOILER ALERT for the rest of my review!)
I’ve read Sedaris’ work before, it’s often funny but tinged with sadness. Bittersweet. My favorite is Six To Eight Black Men, which I re-read every Christmas when family drama gets me stressed. This collection is no exception. The fairy tales of my childhood were filled with happily ever afters and nice guys finish firsts, but as we grow up we find that life just isn’t fair. Sedaris’ collection is a uses the cuddly cloak of animals to poke and prod at the weakest, ugliest, most vulnerable points of human society. The parts we gloss over with our bibbity bobbity boo. David Sedaris is an adorable baby hedgehog.
Obviously I can’t cover all 16 stories, but at the very least I must dissect the title story. But first, an (un)necessary digression… My family knows how obsessed with squirrels I am. I’ve loved them since I was a child. I love how they bounce. I love their swishy tails. They just look so darn cuddly. When I was living in the dorm, one squirrel stole Mean Squirrel’s nut. Mean Squirrel chased the other squirrel round and round the tree until he’d recovered said nut. And then? Mean Squirrel spiked the recovered nut off of the top of thieving squirrel’s head! Which is how he got the name Mean Squirrel. When I changed dorms? He changed trees. I know, because he did the nut thing AGAIN! I have never seen a squirrel engage in such tomfoolery in my entire life. Wasting a nut! Repeatedly? Must be the same squirrel. Tiny woodland creatures? Are my pals. So when Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk was promoted in one of Amazon.Com’s e-mails, my mother and sister both forwarded said e-mail to me. Independently of one another. On the same day. Even if I weren’t a David Sedaris fan, I definitely would have checked out this book.
Anyway! Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk featured cross-species dating between a male squirrel and a female chipmunk. The first line of the story itself states that they “had been dating for two weeks when they ran out of things to talk about.” It’s easy to think, oh yes, I get it, this is a story about dating across cultural boundaries like race and religion and blah blah blah. But what breaks these star-crossed lovers up? Is jazz. Searching for conversation, the squirrel says he likes jazz and the chipmunk agrees without knowing what jazz is. Things unravel when the chipmunk sets her whole house in a tizzy by posing the question: What is jazz? Chipmunk then caves to her mother’s pressure to dump squirrel. Years later? (SPOILER ALERT…Pretend to be surprised now.) It is revealed that chipmunk’s mother doesn’t know what jazz is either. The word jazz, in chipmunk’s quest for answers, becomes a stand-in for “every beautiful thing she had failed to appreciate.” Jazz is improvisation, life is improvisation. We may have a destination in mind but how we end up there is wholly different from any plan we may have set out with. As humans, we mourn for the things we have lost but also for the idea of that thing we never had. And in that is a kind of bittersweet beauty.
Runners-up for the best of the collection are The Faithful Setter, The Motherless Bear, and The Sick Rat & The Healthy Rat. The Faithful Setter is a meditation on marriage in the guise of a pair of married dogs, the male a purebred setter who is sent out to stud and his part-spaniel wife who takes up with the bull terrier across the street. Bubbling beneath the surface is the desire to be needed, to be chosen, to be saved by your partner — a very human insecurity. “It’s not cheating, it’s work” and “He/She’s just a friend”? Yeah, right… And here I’m whoring myself out, trying to parlay what little social media savvy I have into an actual job, so it’s hard for The Motherless Bear not to get under my skin. She starts in a genuine moment of mourning, but soon just acts the part over and over simply for the perks of being a martyr. Her life becomes a performance. And in trying to avoid actually living, she wanders off and meets a circus bear whose complaints she dismisses, because, let’s talk about me. (SPOILER ALERT) In the end? She is the new circus bear. And you know what? Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate who I would be with no one else around and who I am with Twitter in the room. I think it’s 90% the same, because in person I wouldn’t hesitate to call more people out on their bullshit. In a move opposite of the interweb standard, I actively sit here and choose to be less of a bitch. I know, I’m your new heroin(e). Finally, The Sick Rat & The Healthy Rat again hits close to home with me, for the healthy rat proclaims that the sick rat is only sick because his own negativity has made him so. Think about that for a moment: The sick rat is choosing to be sick. I can’t coherently talk about how that statement makes me feel as a cripple, but man, is that story ever worth a read.
Sedaris saves the best for last though, with The Grieving Owl. To sell you on this? A quote:
I never liked the world I saw during the day. Then I started hating the one I saw at night and wondered, What’s left? What changed things, albeit slowly, was learning. It’s like there’s a hole where my life used to be, and I’m filling it with information — about potatoes. About hot water heaters. Anything will do. These leeches, though. For the first time in memory, I was unable to sleep not because I was anxious but because I was excited. To live in a damp crowded asshole [of a hippopotamus] and sing — if these guys don’t know the secret to living, I don’t know who does.
If that one quote doesn’t make you want to read Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, I don’t know what will.